The night the lights go on at Wrigley Field—Aug. 8—the Chicago Cubs, if not their sun-loving fans, will be ready for prime time. Considering that the club finished in last place last season and was picked by many for the cellar again in '88, this fact should carry no less shock value than a finger inserted into a socket of one of Wrigley's new megawatt light towers. But thanks to some bright young talent, the Cubs are, yes, contenders.
This timely coming of age is attributable largely to three players: righthander Greg (Mad Dog) Maddux, 22, whose 13 wins at week's end tied him for first in the majors; leftfielder Rafael Palmeiro, whose .319 average was third best in the National League; and first baseman Mark (Amazing) Grace, 24, who made veteran Leon Durham expendable. But they are only part of the Wrigley youth movement. Four fifths of the starting rotation are under 26, and the roster houses more homegrown talent (11 players) than it has in years. Shortstop Shawon Dunston, a three-year vet, is quick to remind people that he's just 25—and he finally has a peer group in the clubhouse. "It's good to play with guys when you know what they're thinking," says Dunston. "Even if they're smarter than you, they can't be much smarter."
It's a little scary to think what might happen if the young Cubs get much better. Consider last week, when they cruised into L.A. to take on the Dodgers, the NL West leaders, who were on a roll of their own. Boom. Cubbies win two out of three games, as Grace drives in six runs, one of which was the game-winner on Sunday. Or take Chicago's 5-2 win over the NL East-leading Mets recently at Wrigley. Lefty starter Jamie Moyer, 25, and reliever Les Lancaster, 26, held the New York bats in check. Switch-hitting backup catcher Damon Berryhill, 24, knocked in one runner and threw out another. Palmeiro jerked a game-tying solo homer. And Grace's two-out, two-run triple in the eighth provided insurance runs. The next day, with the Mets leading 1-0 in the sixth, a Palmeiro single, a Berryhill single and a Dunston single fueled a six-run inning and a 6-3 win. Oh, yes, the key hit was a single by centerfielder Dave Martinez; he's 23.
The Cubs' recent surge—they have won 13 of their last 17 games—has boosted their record to 43-36, and a collapse like last season's is not imminent. "These guys seem to have had less experience," says wise old reliever Goose Gossage, 36, "but they seem to act more experienced."
Mature on the field, perhaps, but still callow in the clubhouse. Moyer and Maddux recently held a shave-off to see who could put the most stubble in the sink, but the results were too minimal to call a winner. Maddux lugs a Nintendo video game system on the road, and half a dozen Cubbies often stay up playing with it until 2 or 3 a.m. Even second baseman Ryne Sandberg joins in. "It's a little childish, I guess," says old man Sandberg, 28.
The man who has raised these kids is Gordon Goldsberry, a 60-year-old bespectacled gent with silver hair and a gentle voice. A scout for 22 years, Goldsberry was put in charge of revamping player development by Dallas Green when Green became Chicago's general manager in 1981. Goldsberry merely rewrote the club's scouting and instructional manuals and replaced half the scouting staff with young, hungry part-timers. "I went into Dallas's office three or four times to resign," says Goldsberry. "He just laughed."
Dunston was Goldsberry's first choice in the June draft of '82. From '83 to '85 he picked up six more current Cubs. Goldsberry trained his scouting troops to interview potential draft choices with a battery of questions culled from professional mind-probers. "We ask kids if they were interested in being a class officer—something non-paying that shows they want to do a little extra," Goldsberry says. Such lines of inquiry in '85 netted Palmeiro, who had slipped as a junior at Mississippi State after having had a sensational sophomore year. "Our scout came away saying this guy knows what he can do, knows what he wants to do and knows how he wants to get there," says Goldsberry.
When Palmeiro, the 22nd choice in the draft, made the majors in '86, he showed immediately that he also knew how to hit. In his first 29 at bats every swing made some kind of contact. When Mets ace Dwight Gooden finally slipped a fastball past him, Palmeiro homered off him on his next trip up. But in his own mind, Palmeiro has a long way to go. "Most of the times I get out it's my fault," he says. "I get myself out and that's when I get mad." In Double A he used to become so upset with himself that he would soak his cap in mud and wear it onto the field.
Palmeiro, a lefthanded batter, has a wrist cock at the start of his cut that at first seems the fuse for some explosive action to come. Instead, an almost serene stroke follows. "If I could have a swing," says an admiring Grace, "it would be Raffy's." Palmeiro's swing has been compared with Rod Carew's, but since college his looks have been likened to those of Keith Hernandez. "At least he's not a bad-looking guy," Palmeiro says of the Mets' first baseman.
Grace, who admittedly idolizes Hernandez, looks nothing like him. Grace has short blond hair, pink cheeks and eyes that are pools of green. He has some similarities to Palmeiro: Both hit lefthanded, use the entire field and are nearly impossible to fan and even harder to walk. "Having two contact hitters that young on the same club is unusual," says Cub manager Don Zimmer. "But I don't know how to teach a walk."